City Spotlight: Book Publishing in Boston
In many ways, Boston's publishing industry is a mirror on the iconic city. Though relatively small, the city and its publishing are known for history; for being a center for academics, thought and innovation; and for being a hub of independence and rebellion that triggers change. In these times of rapid transition in the industry, Boston just might be the place to see big changes happen in publishing.
A Renaissance of Sorts
"If you stop looking at the Big Six [now five] and saying, 'Well, what are they doing?' and you starting looking at the companies that can be more agile, you start seeing companies that are trying and experimenting, companies that are doing interesting things but also are doing very innovative, potentially scary things," says John Rodzvilla, electronic publisher in residence at Emerson College and board member of Bookbuilders of Boston.
Rodzvilla cites Barefoot Books, an independent children's book publisher with an office in Cambridge. "They are not selling directly to Amazon anymore. What publisher would do that?" he asks. "They decided they don't need it, that they can make money other ways. That fits the [theme of] renaissance because that's how publishing used to be. We didn't rely on big box stores to sell our books. We sold them directly, and that's what [Barefoot is] doing."
Rodzvilla is excited by a groundswell of entrepreneurial publishing starting up in the city. "It's a mix of smaller independent presses that don't want to follow the set pattern," he says. "And there's also a bunch of tech companies that have gotten some venture funding that are reaching out and trying to change how publishing works."
He's not alone in noting a renaissance beginning to bubble up in the city.
"I think there's the beginning of a renaissance and I think given the talent and technology we have in the city, there is an opportunity to really create wonderful books here, made in Boston," says Eve Bridburg, founder and executive director of Grub Street, one of the nation's largest independent creative writing centers.
"In the mid-nineteenth century, Boston was called the Athens of America, largely because the publishing industry was centered in Boston," says Bridburg. "We subsequently lost our publishing dominance to New York. I think what's really exciting about this moment is that the digital revolution in publishing has created the opportunity for a renaissance here in Boston. We have everything we need — the technology and the writing and editorial talent to produce, package and launch books from Boston. There are some exciting startups popping up such as Plympton Press, Libboo and BookBub. My hope is that more and more small ventures will come online."
Smaller Than It Was
Boston has been a hub for publishing for more than a century and continues to have a strong publishing presence — although it must be pointed out that it's notably smaller than in the past.
"It's much smaller," says Tom Plain, a past president of Bookbuilders of Boston. "There's been a lot of consolidation in the last 20 years. You used to have publishers [here] like Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, Pearson Technology, and now those are all down to like two companies. … Also, I will say publishing is like farming; it doesn't take as many people to do it as it used to. "
Plain says Bookbuilders — a nonprofit celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and with a mission to bring together book publishing professionals in the city — counts about 65 book publishers in greater Boston with more than a couple of employees. That does not include various imprints and sub-companies under parents such as Pearson, Cengage Learning or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The organization's members include publishers, vendors and suppliers. "We currently have 79 active member companies and 176 individual members. That is down from the 360 companies we claimed to represent in 2002," Plain says.
A large piece of the industry here is focused on education and academic publishing.
"Boston is a major educational publishing hub, probably the major education publishing hub," Plain says. That includes K-12 and college publishing.
One of the major players in the K-12 arena is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has its corporate headquarters in Boston. Another major publisher in that area is college publisher Pearson. Yet another is Cengage Learning. "Cengage is a huge player. We're talking thousands of employees even in the Boston area," Plain says, adding that the same goes for HMH and Pearson.
Boston, not surprisingly given the concentration of high-profile institutions of higher learning, is also a center for university, scholarly and professional publishing, such as Harvard University Press and MIT Press, among others.
MIT Press recently celebrated 50 years of publishing. "We are an academic publisher with a strong bent for exploring innovative ideas. We publish books, journals and digital products for both scholarly and general readers," says Ellen Faran, director of the MIT Press, which she says "is known for quality, innovation and distinctive design."
Faran says Boston publishers are "strikingly distinctive."
"I'm thinking of Beacon Press, David R. Godine and The Harvard Common Press, for example. … Even publishers who share the same area within the publishing landscape have unique personalities such as Harvard University Press and the MIT Press," she says.
Harvard University Press celebrates 100 years of publishing this year. "I think Harvard University Press is among the larger publishing entities in the area, though not as large as Houghton overall by far," says William Sisler, director of Harvard University Press, which publishes about 170 to 180 new hardcovers a year, both trade and academic titles.
Other big areas of publishing in Boston include science, technology and medical (STM), societies and institutions, and some trade publishing, although this area is much smaller than it used to be, Plain says.
Little Brown and Company, which was founded in Boston in 1837, moved its editorial offices to New York around 1989, but still maintains a presence in Boston. "Little Brown has an office up here, but it's not the 'sexy publishing,'" says Rodzvilla. As for Pearson, Cengage and Wiley Blackwell, she says, "while they are not the Big Six, they are making a lot of money and offering a lot of opportunities."
Harvard Business Review Press is often thought of as an academic publisher but it is primarily a trade publisher, says publisher Sarah McConville. The house has a relationship with Harvard University Business School but is not affiliated with it. McConville says that although the press has an office in Cambridge, it also has offices in London and India and is looking to open another location in Asia. "We certainly do have wonderful relationships with booksellers here in Boston and similarly with libraries," she says. "I would say for our publishing program we do think of it globally."
Da Capo Press publisher John Radziewicz had comments in a similar vein.
"Da Capo is part of the Perseus Books Group, so we are part of a larger independent publishing company that has offices in many cities. We fit into the Boston landscape in a certain way, but also the New York landscape, the Berkeley landscape and the Philadelphia landscape because we have editors in all those places. … I consider myself part of the publishing scene, not the Boston scene. Now more than ever in a time of instantaneous communication, where you are [located doesn't have] as much relevance," he says.
The trade publisher, which was founded in 1964, became part of Perseus in 1999 and publishes a range of books in classics, literature, humanities and wellness. It happens to be the "premiere publisher" of books on veganism in the United States, says Radziewicz.
Boston supports its local bookstores, even though there are fewer around than there used to be, according to Emerson's Rodzvilla. "We do support them, we also see innovation. We have some really good bookstores and you have some fun things going on like Harvard Book Store having their bike delivery service and Porter Square Books going beyond the bookstore and having other kinds of events," says Rodzvilla of the bookseller's regular events with local and national authors. "The audience loves to read. I think we have a high percentage of readers but I think we have a lot of people that buy from Amazon. They need to know better. Buy local."
He adds that Boston has a "secret weapon": author Neil Gaiman, who lives in the area and wrote American Gods, Stardust, Coraline and The Sandman. Porter Square Books is one of the few bookstores in the nation for whom Gaiman is doing a reading and signing for his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (The event will take place at a local church.) Also, author Junot Diaz teaches at MIT. "We have this weird population of really big-name authors," Rodzvilla said.
The city is also home to the Boston Book Festival, a popular literary fair and reading series, which will be in its fifth year in October, and Emerson College, which offers undergraduate and graduate programs in publishing and writing. Grub Street welcomed over 2,500 writing students to the center last year, Bridburg says.
"There is a lot happening and it's very exciting," says Bridburg. "The hope is that we can build on this and give New York a run for its money."
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